Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday From The Collectors - November 7

VINTAGE CAMERAS - TIME MACHINES

Rebecca Fenning
a sense of face

It’s a little known fact, but it is completely possible to time travel with nothing more than an old camera and a roll of film. Moreover, this phenomenon only becomes more impressive the more we become accustomed to digital photography and thereby separated from the process that produced the family pictures we treasure so much. Vintage cameras help us to give some insight into the technologies and instruments that produced the pictures in our collections, but just as importantly, they also put us in touch with our mothers’, grandmothers’ and younger selves’ experiences of picture taking.

Photograph taken with ancestral
Welta Reflekta I
2007 [1]

Swimming pool construction ca. 1960s
Photograph possibly taken with
Brownie Starmeter
[2]

At the most basic level, having an idea about the kind of camera my grandfather might have used to take pictures on his honeymoon is a good thing, for it gives a better sense of the material culture and the texture of his time, as well as providing a deeper context for his photos. Similarly, dating and describing family photographs becomes easier when you can identify (at least attempt to identify) negatives or slides as the products of 116, 127 or 626 film, for example. The fact that I can recognize my aunt might have used the very same Baby Brownie Special currently in my camera bag to take a picture of her new puppy in 1958

Hoffer, Helene. Kathi, Ethel and Frank Hoffer
with Jackie, ca. 1958
Photograph probably with
Baby Brownie Special
[3]

adds another level of insider knowledge to my identification of family photos. But it also illustrates my personal belief about the potential of photography to become a deeply meaningful site of intergenerational interaction as well as the notion (also mine) that cameras are living objects whose greatest value lies in their continued use, which is, after all, the only way to truly harness the power of their time-traveling ability.

St. Paul, Oregon diptych, 2007.
Photograph taken with ancestral
Baby
Brownie Special [4]


Looking through the lens of a vintage camera and pressing the shutter can be quite literally like looking through a porthole to a different time. This is pretty obvious when considering the foggy, scratched and inexact lenses of inexpensive snapshot cameras like Brownies but is true of higher quality cameras as well, simply because of the fact that using them requires slowing down to match their pace. The memory-making tools of the past are very different from those to which we’ve grown accustomed in the last 10 or 20 years as the speed, automation and quality of point-and-shoot film and digital cameras has gotten faster and better. In addition to this difference in process, it is also important to remember that the product film cameras create – especially the old, crappy ones – is profoundly different from those created by our digital cameras. While digital cameras (and newer film cameras, too) generally seek to make themselves as invisible as possible in their finished products, old cameras imprint themselves on the negatives and prints they produce, leaving artifactual traces of the process of picture taking – blurs, halos, scratches and distortions that can turn the most modern scene into something magical and unstuck in time. This, of course, has great artistic potential, which is part of the reason why I use vintage cameras as much as I do.


Frank Hoffer, ca 1950s, probably
taken with Brownie Starmeter [5]


Photograph taken with ancestral
Welta Refleka I
2007 [6]


I own a fair number of cameras, many of them cheap and old. The most special of these were so cheap that they were actually free, which belies their true, incalculable value. These cameras had been sitting and gathering dust in the backs of familial closets before they came to me and, as such, have an emotional connection to me that takes them beyond being just photographic tools in my arsenal. They were cameras that had belonged to my mother and her sister as kids, and though neither them nor their parents are or were exceptionally capable photographers (my mom said she knew her sister had taken the above puppy photo because of the fact that their father’s head was not included in the picture), inheriting them felt unbelievably special. Even more special was that one of them, found in my aunt’s closet, a Brownie Starmeter she had labeled with her name and address as a child, had a roll of film in it. When I excitedly finished it and had it developed, I was greeted by a 30 year old picture of my grandmother, taken sometime before the camera had been put away in the back of a closet.

[L] Photograph taken with ancestral Brownie Starmeter. [7]

[R] Ethel Hoffer, ca 1960s, taken with
Brownie Starmeter [8]


That picture appearing on a roll of film next to pictures I’d just taken, 16 years after my grandmother’s death, was the moment when I realized just how special this camera inheritance chain really was – for it wasn’t just about how neat pictures look through the distorted, scratchy, plastic lenses of old cameras, but about how I was collaborating with past picture-takers through my use of these cameras, through learning to see the world quite literally through the same lenses they’d used to document themselves for posterity.

Some of my vintage cameras,
including those discussed above

with their approximate production dates
taken with a Polaroid SLR 680 (1980s)
Note: Not all of these are crappy cameras! :)
L to R : Polaroid Square Shooter 2 (1972-1975)
120 film, 116 and 127 film spools
Welta Reflekta I (1950-55)
Polaroid Automatic 250 (1967-1969)
Baby Brownie Special (1939-1954)
Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic (1915-1926)
Kodak 2A Brownie Model B (1911-1924)
on top: Brownie Starmeter (1960-65)
Zenza Bronica S2 (ca 1965)
Conley Kewpie 2a (ca 1917-1922)
[9]



Source:

[1] Fenning, Rebecca. Encino, California, 2007. Photograph taken with ancestral Welta Reflekta I.
[2] Swimming pool construction, ca. 1960s. Photograph possibly taken with Brownie Starmeter.
[3] Hoffer, Helene. Kathi, Ethel and Frank Hoffer with Jackie, ca. 1958. Photograph probably with Baby Brownie Special.
[4] Fenning, Rebecca. St. Paul, Oregon diptych, 2007. Photograph taken with ancestral Baby Brownie Special.
[5] Frank Hoffer, ca 1950s, probably taken with Brownie Starmeter.
[6] Fenning, Rebecca. Encino, California, 2006. Photograph taken with ancestral Welta Refleka I.
[7] Fenning, Rebecca. Los Angeles, California, 2006. Photograph taken with ancestral Brownie Starmeter.
[8] Ethel Hoffer, ca 1960s, taken with Brownie Starmeter.
[9] Fenning, Rebecca. Vintage cameras, 2008. Taken with a non-ancestral Polaroid SLR 680.

Article
Copyright © 2008
Rebecca Fenning
a sense of face

4 Comments:

Anonymous Denise Levenick, The Family Curator said...

Rebecca -- I love your article. What a wonderful way to start the week with an inspiration to dig out my old cameras and give them another run.

The notion of "artifactual traces of the process of picture taking – blurs, halos, scratches and distortions that can turn the most modern scene into something magical and unstuck in time" is especially enticing.

I'll be looking for more "new" vintage photos at your blog.

Denise

November 10, 2008 at 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Sally J. said...

"The memory-making tools of the past are very different from those to which we’ve grown accustomed in the last 10 or 20 years."

Rebecca, that is so very true. Your project is marvelous, and my geeky friends who got an email from me with a link to your post loved it, too. I'm still blown away that you found and developed an unfinished roll of film with a long forgotten photo of your grandma.

One quick question...

How on earth do you find the correct film for a vintage camera? There's one of these babies headed my way, but I can't take any photos until I track down some film.

Cheers,

-Sally J.
The Practical Archivist

November 10, 2008 at 1:58 PM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

REBECCA,

Your love for family and for old photographs and for old cameras is most evident in this beautiful article.

And you've inspired me to dig out the four or five decades-old rolls of film exposed gosh only knows when or where and see what images from the past appear. [Does everyone have rolls of exposed undeveloped film lying about --- it seems to be universal!]

Thanks for contributing such a well written and thought provoking article.

And MAVEN,thanks for presenting such talent!

Regards,
Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi

November 10, 2008 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger rebecca ann said...

Thanks Denise, Sally and Terry! I'm so glad I've inspired you to take out your old cameras!

Sally, Ebay is often a decent source for old film, but so are vendors like The Frugal Photographer or Freestyle Photo in Los Angeles. Google tells me that your camera takes 126 film, which the Frugal Photographer sells. You might have a hard time finding someone to process that film, but if you poke around, there are a bunch of mail-order film processing places that will probably be able to handle it. I can also plug some groups on Flickr - like the Vintage Camera Photography group - as being full of knowledgeable folks who know their old cameras much much better than I!

Rebecca
sense of face

November 13, 2008 at 10:00 AM  

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